Performance Anxieties


June 8, 2015 by Jean


Last week, my 11-week singing workshop, sponsored by the Portland Public Library under a Creative Aging grant, ended with a public performance. We sang seven songs that we learned during our weekly classes, from a variety of musical genres and in a number of different languages, and then ended with a medley from the Sound of Music.

Before the performance, I wondered if I would be visited by any of my old performance anxieties, where I would have so much adrenalin pumping that I would lose control of my breathing and sing off key. My most humiliating experience of this came my sophomore year of high school, when I was cast in the lead in a school musical. I got so off-key during one solo that it was painful to listen to (although I was unaware of it while it was happening). I was fine singing in the chorus, or in a small ensemble, even a trio, but I never sang solo again; and I always felt this as a loss. In the first week of my singing workshop, the song I made up to introduce myself musically to the group included the lines:

And I always longed to be a soloist,

but my nemesis adrenalin kept me in the choir….

There were some performance anxieties at last week’s concert. The performance was fun and went fine, but it was far from perfect. Some singers had more trouble singing in late afternoon than at our morning classes. Occasionally, good singers got flustered and forgot their parts. Some last-minute changes to the keys in which some songs were sung probably threw some people off. My own gaffe involved losing track of where I was in a song and not coming in on time when mine was supposed to be the only voice singing! (Interestingly, this seemed to be the result of being too relaxed and letting my mind wander rather than of performance anxiety.) Some of these moments were reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim’s song “Send in the Clowns.”

And, at one point someone did send in the clowns. David, a member of our group with a beautiful tenor voice and an irrepressible love of clowning around, was assigned to sing the opening verse of the rousing spiritual “Down in the River to Pray” as a solo. At the appointed moment, David began to sing:

As I went down in the river to pray,

glub… glub… glub… glub…

There was a moment of shocked silence, and then both audience and singers cracked up laughing as David looked at the director and asked in mock innocence, “Oh, were we beginning for real?” We regrouped and started again, and it ended up being our best performance of the evening. David’s joking around had relaxed everyone so that the song had the upbeat, spontaneous quality that it needs.

We worried that we wouldn’t have any audience for our performance, but there were a couple of dozen people there, mostly family and friends of group members, and they were an appreciative and supportive audience. I didn’t expect that I would know anyone in the audience, and I was both surprised and thrilled to discover that my friend Anne had made the trip down to Portland to be there.

Despite various missteps and mistakes, our choral group ended the night feeling good about the performance and our singing experience. It helped that we have some hope of continuing next fall if needed funds can be found to replace the grant money. That prospect made this our “first performance” rather than our “only performance.” When the performance was over, chorus members milled around accepting congratulations from audience members, hugging one another, exchanging contact information, and making plans to keep in touch. By the time I got home, I was experiencing the mixed emotions that I remember from closing nights of high school musicals – feeling simultaneously exhilarated and bereft.

This singing experience has gotten me back in touch with my singing self, which is wonderful all on its own. And it turns out that I’m no longer troubled by the performance-anxiety adrenalin spikes that plagued me in high school; I outgrew this problem during my 40 years of performing at the front of a classroom as a teacher. This singing experience made me realize that I enjoy performing, with its opportunity to project a slightly-larger-than-life personality. At this point in my life, I probably could be a soloist, but I’ve discovered that I don’t long to be a soloist after all. In my musical introduction to myself at the beginning of the workshop, after I confessed that my adrenalin problems had relegated me to the choir, I ended my song with these words:

…where I learned to harmonize

and to love it.

And this has turned out to be true. What I really love most is not singing alone, but singing harmony with a few other voices in a small ensemble.


8 thoughts on “Performance Anxieties

  1. Charles Emmons says:

    Jean, I’m reading this from an apartment on the bank of a canal in Venice, where you would sound great on a gondola. One reaction I have is that this chorus story would make a wonderful TV series (I’m not joking). Vicariously I can feel the joy in this. I’m so happy for you. You are so insightful and self-reflective, which, combined with your great writing skill, make everything you write engaging. – Charlie

    • Jean says:

      Charlie, It’s great to hear that you and Penelope made it to Venice. I hope you’re having a great time.
      I’m trying to imagine this TV series — sort of Glee meets Waiting for God?

  2. Jean R. says:

    What a great way to end the workshop! I’m glad you had such a great time and was able to connect with a part of your old self that turned out to be so enriching in the present. I’m raising my glass in a toast to a successful retirement!

  3. Diana Studer says:

    I don’t have your singing confidence, but I can remember that sparkle of excitement when 2 or 3 part harmonies come together, just so. Usually at the rehearsal, not the performance, sigh.

    • Jean says:

      I’m familiar with that sigh when the performance doesn’t come together quite like the rehearsal did. This happened with the song I was most excited about singing, “In This Heart”. I wanted the performance to be one that really moved people, but it just didn’t come together. I’m hoping I’ll get a chance to perform it again sometime, with better results.

  4. Jean I love this message as it transcends into many areas of our lives…I am tone deaf and do not sing in public, but with lots of practice I can harmonize…and I enjoy singing…by myself. I am exploring some creative outlets too that I hope to share….it is great stretching my creative self.

    • Jean says:

      Donna, Apparently, there is a whole nationwide push in the area of “creative aging programs.” Many, like the one I participated in, have a resident artist who runs the program and is paid through grant money. Libraries and universities seem to be two common venues for such programs.

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I am Jean Potuchek, a professional sociologist who has just stepped into the next phase of my life, retirement, after more than thirty years of college teaching. This blog is about my experience of that new phase of life.

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